Remember Olivia? I first saw her at our Saturday morning farmers’ market. It’s where people come and sell their produce – everything from Swiss chard to goats’ milk body lotion.
Olivia was attracting a crowd of children, who could pay five dollars – or their parents could – for her to paint a picture for them. She had considerable talent; her sample oeuvre, a funky abstract, looked better than most of the stuff in the Tate Modern. This was remarkable considering we were in rural western New York and even more remarkable considering Olivia was a pig.
Intrigued by this porcine Picasso. who painted with her snout, I stopped to talk to her owners, John and Jessica Policastro.
Their farm stall sold, among other things, pork chops but Olivia, they hastened to tell me, was a family pet, a “teacup pig” as they’re called and perfectly behaved and housetrained.
We got chatting and I took up their invitation to come and visit the farm.
It was called “Flanigan Farm”, after the steep Flanigan Hill not that far from us. As I walked down the precipitous drive (“A bit intimidating – better leave your car on the road”, John had warned), three small brown-and-white piglets chased each other across my path and into the barn.
John and Jessica were in there with their ten-year-old twin daughters, Keely and Noella, who were seeing to Dahlia the white goat, Keely’s favourite. “The animals are like our friends,” she said, scratching Dahlia’s head.
Noella’s favourite was a Jersey-cross calf called Baby. Both girls had won prizes for their animals at the County Fair, “The hardest part”, Noella confided, “was getting her to stand with the legs right, so the judge could see all of them”.
The Policastros have had animals for about ten years but recently started a more commercial enterprise.
It was partly, John said, to do with the girls getting old enough to help out. “It’s really confidence-building for them”.
“Now I let them do all the work and I enjoy the animals!” Jessica quipped.
At last count they have 20 turkeys being raised for Thanksgiving, two calves, six piglets, including three older ones, “The Three Amigos” (two named Hamilton and Bacon Bits, so they don’t get too sentimental about them; the third, Spot, might get a reprieve) and Poppy the matriarch sow, “We had a boar but he’s in the freezer”.
Then there are the goats and the chickens for laying eggs and eating.
It’s not all storybook stuff. They lost nine piglets to a mystery illness, a raccoon once decimated the chickens and the laying hens are currently “on strike”.
Plus it has rather changed their lives. “It’s hard to go on vacation!” said Jessica.
But they’re rewarded by their customers’ enthusiasm. They like the idea that the animals are free to roam. After all, not every chicken can boast its own private Cresta Run – in winter, the girls take them sledding down the drive.
“I can tell our customers that I know what’s gone into those chickens since the day they were born”, said John, “I didn’t know how much it would matter to people but it does.”
It’s a challenge as the Policastros both have day jobs, John in marketing and Jessica as office manager at the local Catholic school, which the twins attend. Various Policastro animals are called into service at Christmas for the school’s live Nativity scene.
“And the values of the school are reflected in everything we do,” added John, “Being Catholic isn’t just a hobby.”
As we stood in the yard, bathed in evening sunshine, someone called out, “Look!” A wild crane, a large stork-like bird had landed on the Policastros’ car. The girls rushed to take pictures.
I could think of worse places for animals – or kids – to grow up.
And there’s never a dull moment. The animals’ free-and-easy life does have its drawbacks. John told me the tale of how their first pig escaped and he went out in the car to fetch it back. He ended up heading home with the pig trotting behind the car. A woman driving by braked and gaped, “ I just have to hear this story!”
And I thought you should too.